Headline events in recent weeks have shown that Americans hold strong and varied opinions about the issue of marriage. Significant topics like this can bring about emotional, pick-a-side-and-fight-it-out discussions that leave us feeling worse about the people we disagree with, and sometimes worse about ourselves.

Advocacy is, of course, a crucial component of a healthy democracy. People should vigorously campaign for their points of view. But we also need to find ways to listen respectfully to those with opposing views.

Unfortunately, polarization has become the norm in our society. Destructive divisiveness is evident in our social discourse, in the media, in families and even in congregations.

It is by engaging with those with whom we disagree that we may find surprising ways forward. Shouting, fist-shaking and name-calling neither build relationships nor create community.

There is another way to talk. Hundreds of Minnesotans have been engaging in conversations about the proposed amendment to define marriage through the Respectful Conversations Project, a program of the Minnesota Council of Churches with support from the Bush Foundation. We believe the public discussion of this issue is too important to be relegated to competing television commercials.

The goal of each of these conversations is to soften hearts, not to change minds. We do not aim to influence the vote; we want to influence the tenor of the conversation. And we applaud all those who are also leading respectfully.

We invite everyone to be part of the effort to increase empathy toward others even as we lead with our own deeply held values.

More than 25 churches from different traditions in the Twin Cities and in Greater Minnesota are already taking part in the council's new project. Additional funding from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation will expand the project into non-Christian congregations.

The plan is for at least 60 congregations to invite the public into conversations that explore issues through the lens of deeply held convictions while maintaining, and even enhancing, relationships among those who disagree.

The conversations are conducted in a highly structured way, led by trained facilitators. The process creates a safe place for people to engage with those of different viewpoints. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Said one participant: "I was in the minority at my table, but I never felt threatened."

Hosting a Respectful Conversation helps a congregation to become a source of peacemaking in its community, cooling the heat of divisive discussions. Whatever the outcome in November, participants will have learned and practiced talking about significant issues resulting in deepening their understanding of each other.

Even though we will not all agree, we are still called to live with one another in community.


The Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin is executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches. For information about the Respectful Conversations Project, go here